10 January 2008

Václav Havel of the Czech Republic

To meet Václav Havel is not only to realize how little you have done for your country. You have not, for example, given the world a clear picture of freedom when your nation was oppressed; you have not led that country into liberty and guided it in its first steps as an independent state. No. To meet Václav Havel is also to realize how little you have written, and how little you have read. And it is to realize that you are hurting the planet, the longer you persist in your cussed ignorance.

During an interview in Prague Castle, in 1994, Dan Rather introduced me to Havel, at the time the president of the Czech Republic. “This is Bill Madison, who is also a writer,” Dan said, “and also a great admirer of your writings.”

Havel smiled politely, and I began to pray that his next words would not be, “Which of my plays do you prefer? Or do you admire my many nonfiction writings? My essays are particularly influential: do you have a favorite?” Because, dear reader, I had read not one word of Václav Havel’s prodigious oeuvre.

I thought fast. “I’m also an admirer of someone you admire,” I said, “and someone who admired you: Samuel Beckett.”

Now his face lit up. Beckett!

It is a strange thing, but it is true, that the mere mention of the name of the Irish playwright, who pretty much cornered the market on a particular brand of anomie and despair, can bring delight to so many people. I’ve seen it a hundred times. Say Beckett’s name, and you will make someone happy. Weirdly, inexplicably happy.

President Havel had just such a goofy grin on his face at this very moment, and we began to talk about Samuel Beckett.

During his long years as Czechoslovakia’s leading author and leading dissident, Havel, like many other dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, turned to Beckett for wisdom. Didn’t Eastern Europe wait for freedom the way Vladimir and Estragon waited for Godot? How often did these men and women say, “I can’t go on; I’ll go on”?

Didn’t writers like Havel himself look at Beckett’s work and understand that his language, his style were in and of themselves acts of defiance?

Havel was sitting in prison and thinking about Beckett; meanwhile, Beckett was sitting in Paris and thinking about Havel. Beckett’s last published play, his most overtly political, is dedicated to Havel, who was languishing in a Communist prison when he wrote it. Catastrophe appeared first not on any stage but in the pages of The New Yorker magazine.

The play depicts a strange sort of rehearsal, for an even stranger sort of play. The Catastrophe, a mute and pitiable figure, stands on a plinth (not a pedestal, not a block, a plinth: word choice is important in Beckett’s work), while two other characters, a director and his assistant, comment on him.

For some reason, my friends Rick Moody and Andy Weems, abetted by a professor, Keith Waldrop, decided that it would be a good idea to take the play — two pages, not counting the cartoon in the magazine — and stage it at the Rhode Island School of Design. They asked me to play Luke, the lighting designer, who has one line.

And that is how I got to be in a world premiere of a play by Samuel Beckett.

Excepting of course that one line is not enough for Bill Madison. Oh, no. Bill’s public demands more. No matter that Beckett’s prose is spare and rigorous and carefully planned; no matter that deviations are not ever, ever permitted in his work. Oh, no. Bill Madison must reach out, to the little people, behind the lights. He must feel the warm embrace of their applause. Given that special relationship between artist and audience, what’s Beckett to him, or he to Beckett?

And so I ad-libbed, “Bring up dimmer four.”

I underscore: this was not a line that Beckett had written, or even anticipated. Nobody else anticipated it, either. Rick and Andy were horrified. The person running the light board (was it Professor Waldrop’s wife, Rosemary?) didn’t understand what I’d said. It took a long minute to get the play back on track, though the play itself lasts only about five minutes. Thus I not only acted in, I spoiled the world premiere of a play by Samuel Beckett. It was a catastrophe of an entirely different kind.

I sketched the roughest outlines of this tale for Havel’s benefit. “You added a line?” he said. He shook his head and chuckled catarrhally. (A lifetime of chainsmoking and several years in prison had done no good for his lungs; he was diagnosed with cancer shortly after we met.) “And you didn’t pay royalties?”

Oh, the follies of youth! And what the hell, it was all in good fun, and Havel was out of prison now, and president besides, and Beckett was dead and not complaining.

While the camera crew were setting up lights, Havel and I continued to talked — briefly — about Billie Whitelaw, one of Beckett’s favorite actresses, whom I’d seen and met in New York; and about Jarmila Novotná, the Czech soprano, whom Havel had welcomed back to Prague after five decades of exile.

I don’t claim that this was the world’s most fascinating conversation, but in Havel’s eye gleamed a light that quickly faded when he began to talk politics with Dan; I had the distinct feeling that he’d be happier to swap theatrical yarns, with me or with Dan or with anybody, than to submit to the public rituals of the head of state.

He was, after all, among the least likely presidents the world has ever known, a poet ill at ease in a jacket and tie, a dissident better acquainted with the philosophy of politics than with the practice. His words were meant to inspire the Czech people, not to discuss policy or to sweet-talk the American television audience.

It is as if, in the revolution of 1848, the French had installed Victor Hugo in power, or, closer yet, Charles Baudelaire, and the wonder is that Havel succeeded as well as he did in the presidency. To expel the Russian military from the country’s borders might have been enough to crown any president with laurels, but Havel also guided the country safely through the split with Slovakia, helped the Czech Republic gain admission to the European Union, and in general helped his people recover their proud traditions of democracy and culture, too long denied them by successive occupations.

Some day I hope to have the opportunity to talk again about theater with Havel. And this time, I intend to read some of his damned plays first.